Thursday, February 14, 2013

the angle at which one views an object

Golden mean detector wand. Click to view at larger size.
Today in my wood shop, I'm working on chapter three which illustrates proportion and scale from the principles and elements of design. I can never talk about proportion in a class of grownups without the Fibonacci sequence of numbers being brought into the discussion.

Variously called the "golden mean" the "golden rectangle", or the "golden ratio", Phi, Φ, is a ratio or proportion discovered by the ancient Greeks and applied to architecture and other man-made things, as it was assumed to impart a greater sense of beauty and harmony. The front-on view of the Parthenon is an illustration of the use of Phi. The actual proportion is 1: 1.61803... or 1+ the square root of 5 divided by 2, though most folks attempting to use it in real life simply multiply one side by 1.618 or 1.62 to get the length of the other.

Students want a magic bullet of design that will make their boxes perfectly proportioned. But what I've discovered is that good proportion is closer to hand than Phi. We have a tendency to superimpose the intellectual over the emotional and physical, in our effort to systematize and display intellectual prowess. But in designing boxes, there are other real concerns that come into play. Does it fit the object it was planned to hold? Can the hand fit within it to actually remove the objects it holds? Are the sides of the box thick enough for the hinges you plan to use? Will it fit on the desk without overpowering? Is it heavy or light? And, will it last?  If beauty could be reduced to a simple formula, would it require that we view the object from a particular vantage point? That particular dead on view in which we examine the Parthenon? And no other? What if the object is viewed from one corner or the other, and the ratio between length or width and height can no longer be so easily seen?

When I've taught furniture design I've passed out golden-mean-detector wands (as shown in the drawing above) for my students to use to observe reality straight on. The wand simply has a cut-out at the right proportion, 1/2 in. x .809 in. and you can hold it up to your eye and align the edges of the field of vision with the edges of the object you want to observe to see whether or not it was designed according to the golden mean. Most of the man-made beautiful things you will discover in the world were not. But that, in itself, should not discourage you from using every tool at your disposal. If you need to use Phi as a way of increasing your confidence in design, and it gets you into the wood shop, there's no harm in that.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Very clever gadget, Doug. Is it your own idea?


  2. Yes. I'm glad you like it.

  3. What a great idea. And I do try to keep things in proportion when I make boxes. But sometimes I make one that violates that rule, when the piece that will become the top is some odd size.